WASHINGTON – Shay Khatiri believes in the power of community, even if that community is hundreds of miles from where he is living and worlds away from the culture in which he was raised.
So when Khatiri, an Iranian immigrant who is studying in Washington, learned that a gunman walked in to a Pittsburgh synagogue and opened fire on Oct. 27, killing 11 worshipers in what prosecutors said was a hate-inspired attack, he knew he had to act.
“I thought to myself that if I set up a GoFundMe, there’s nothing to lose from doing it,” said Khatiri, a 2018 graduate of Arizona State University. “But if it raises $500 or $700, it’s still a little money, better than nothing.”
It turned out to be a lot better than nothing: Thousands of people from around the world ended up donating more than $1.2 million to the GoFundMe account in the month after the attack.
Members of the synagogue in the middle-class, largely Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill were still reeling in the days after the shooting when they began to hear about the GoFundMe account that had been started by a stranger.
“It was a light in the darkness of a lot of challenging days that we had, to see that people would reach out in the way they had and help us when we were busy dealing with funerals and the losses that we had,” said Sam Schachner, president of the Tree of Life Synagogue board of trustees.
Schachner said the money will be used to help the victims’ families and to rebuild the synagogue, which was damaged in the attack.
The shooting began during Saturday morning services when police say Robert Bowers entered the Tree of Life, or L’Simcha, congregation armed with three pistols and a rifle. An indictment in the case said Bowers opened fire, saying he wanted to “kill Jews” as he went through the synagogue.
The gunman killed 11 people and wounded others, including police officers responding to the scene, according to charging documents. Bowers has been charged in federal court with 44 counts in connection with the attack, including charges of murder, hate crimes, firearms violations and obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death.
Bowers, who could face death on many of the charges, has pleaded not guilty.
The Oct. 27 shooting was the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Khatiri, who is studying for his master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University, said he was motivated in part by the impact the news of the shooting had on a Jewish friend who was staying with him at the time.
News of Khatiri’s efforts also reached Washington resident Mike Silverstein, who said he grew up going to Tree of Life Synagogue and had his bar mitzvah there in 1961. After hearing about Khatiri’s efforts, he reached out to thank him.
“What I’ve learned from Shay and what I’ve been reminded is that we shouldn’t be viewing people as what they are, but rather who they are as people,” Silverstein said.
Khatiri came to the U.S. five years ago, fleeing violence in Iran. He says his family back in Iran is proud of his desire to help those affected.
“They want me to be a positive member of this country,” Khatiri said.
Although he is not a naturalized citizen, Khatiri said he considers the U.S. his home, a place where neighbor will help neighbor in trying times.
“I never felt like home until I moved here,” he said. “In my heart, I am a citizen of the United States.”
Khatiri says he has spoken briefly with those at the synagogue and hopes to visit Pittsburgh in December.
“Pittsburgh is not my immediate community,” he said. “But it’s part of my country and my country is my community at large.”
Schachner said Tree of Life plans to reach out to the local community for input on how to use some of the funds from the GoFundMe account – funds he said will help the congregation on its long road to recovery.
“There’s just so much appreciation for what everybody has done in this process to help us,” Schachner said. “I certainly wish I would live in a country where we can all show a sense of respect and, as our rabbi has said, focus on love rather than hate.”